Saturday, November 15, 2008

NAVSA 2008 - Part 2

On Friday evening, Elizabeth Prettejohn gave the Plenary Session talk entitled "John William Waterhouse: Between Celebrity and Oblivion." The picture by Waterhouse you see here, The Lady of Shalott (1888) is at the Tate Britain, and was a highlight of her talk. Prettejohn introduced the discussion by pointing out that in Waterhouse's day, he was an extremely popular artist. However, like almost all Victorian art, he fell out of favor with the rise of abstraction and other 20th-century art forms. Yet, his popularity never truly faded, for the Tate Britain reports that the postcard of this painting has ranked for decades as its most popular postcard ever. In other words, despite the 120-year passage of time, Waterhouse's work still has the uncanny ability to draw people in with its haunting symbolism and combined classical/medieval imagery and subject matter. Why this work has attracted people for so long is still up for discussion, but the short of it is that Waterhouse deserves a more extensive study, and thus is the subject of a new exhibition opening next month in The Netherlands, then traveling to the Royal Academy in London (where I hope to see it next summer), and Montreal. Yet, what Prettejohn pointed out as being significant was that despite Waterhouse's ongoing popularity, his work is still perceived as kitsch by some museums, and finding support for a full academic exhibition on him was met with great hesitancy and outright rejection. Prettejohn gave an extensive survey of his career, moving from his early classical subjects, his brief experimentation with French plein-air (i.e. Impressionist) painting, and his ultimate focus on mysticism and the Symbolist movement as his career truly succeeded in the 1880s and on into the new century. She also pointed out the different methodological ways one could approach this work, discussing formal elements, romantic biography, or cultural studies as examples. Ultimately, however, she attempted to explore Symbolism, or perhaps explore the idea of mysticism and paganism as it was popular in the 1890s in England, although pointing out how a unique feature of his work is that it is difficult to trace things for sure, because we now so little about Waterhouse himself. It is as if his own life was as mysterious as the occult world in which he himself was interested.

All in all, I thought her talk was fantastic. It served a needed purpose: to point out that even though museums have resisted showing Waterhouse's work, he deserves the extensive treatment he will get with this new exhibition. She then went on to provide both a chronological survey of his career, his own recurring motifs and echoes of other artists' motifs, and spent most of the time exploring mystical symbols in his work. Prettejohn is an amazing art historian whose publications in 19th-century art, in particular Victorian art, has quickly skyrocketed her to a leading position in the field. I have at least five of her books at home, including The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (2000) and Art for Art's Sake (2008).

Surprisingly, though, the backlash among some of the literary scholars at the conference startled me. At dinner on Friday night, a few surprised me by what I felt was unfair criticism of her talk. I defended her talk, however, and I realize in retrospect that there were two major issues at stake. The first was that they expected a more in-depth analysis of some of Waterhouse's pictures. They were looking for criticism, not an art historical overview. I can see what they're suggesting, but this wasn't meant to be like a conference presentation on a panel session. This was meant to be an example of work for which she has become well known, a cursory example of her art historical talents. In addition, it was meant to correlate to the exhibition that she is co-curating (with Peter Trippi) on Waterhouse. In other words, this talk was meant to present the challenges of still doing a Victorian art exhibition, and despite their critique, did include aspects of interpretation, both from the time period and from now. This leads to my second observation. Literary scholars really don't have to justify their work. They work with texts and they largely write about what they want. For the art historian, this is not always so easy. There are issues like the art market, museum politics, and corporate funding to consider. Art historian not only need to read everything like literary scholars, but they are also expected to know the visual objects which are the focus of their work. They work with image first, interpretation second, and this is something that I think literary scholars don't always grasp. The good news is that despite some of the fall-out I heard from a few people about Prettejohn's talk, I also heard from a few other literary scholars who found her talk to be excellent. All of which just goes to prove that you can't please everyone all the time. But I was thrilled to be there and will always look forward to hearing Prettejohn speak again.

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